Finally(!), we come to the reason I had to visit Belgium on the second weekend of May in 2015. Kattenstoet! This cat themed festival is held in Ieper (Ypres) every three years, and evolved from the much darker tradition of throwing cats from the top of the Cloth Hall’s bell tower (which in itself came about because Ieper is historically a cloth-manufacturing town (mentioned in The Canterbury Tales as one of the towns the Wife of Bath could best in cloth-making); people needed something to keep rats out of the cloth, so they brought in cats, but the cats quickly multiplied and overran the town, so the citizens of Ieper then needed some way to get rid of the excess cats. This being an age before humane treatment of animals was a thing).
They stopped throwing live cats in 1817, and the festival went dormant until after WWI, when the people of Ieper (I’d call them Yperites, but that’s what the French called mustard gas, so they must have a different demonym) wanted a new image for the city, after the horrors of war, and revived the cat tradition in the form of a parade. Unfortunately, they picked 1938 as the year to reinstate the festival, so for obvious reasons, it went on hiatus again until 1946, when they REALLY needed something to cheer them up (a more detailed history is available on the official website I linked to in the first paragraph). Kattenstoet happily continues to this day, in the form of a three-hour parade, followed by a “fool” throwing toy cats from the tower, and the burning of witches in effigy (another reference to the darker origins of the parade).
After reading about the parade (and seeing postcards of some of the floats) in the gift shop of the In Flanders Fields Museum a couple of years ago, I knew I HAD to attend the next event, and so it was I found myself staking out a spot amongst the crowds on the pavement on a sunny Sunday afternoon a couple months ago (with my long-suffering boyfriend). A cat festival is perhaps an odd choice for someone who is allergic to cats, and thus has never owned one, but like most other people in this internet age, I enjoy looking at amusing pictures of them online, and happily stop to pet the cats that live on my street (I just immediately wash my hands afterwards). Besides, this festival was just too bizarre to miss. They had me at “cat-themed tableaux.”
I was a little worried about getting a good spot at all because the advertising caravan was due to kick off at 2, at which point we were just getting into Ieper, and we ended up having to park at a strip mall a couple miles outside of town because all the spaces closer were filled up. (You can book a seat on one of the grandstands in advance for a modest fee (if you consider 15 euros modest), but we opted to go the cheapo route and just find somewhere to stand.) However, plenty of Belgians were walking into the centre of town at the same time we were, so clearly not everyone shows up hours early to get a spot. And we ended up finding somewhere near the end of the parade route, so even though it was well after 2:30 when we finally got there, the advertising caravan was just starting to pass through. Fortunately for not-very-tall me, we managed to get a place on a raised walkway in front of some shops, so I could actually see most of what was going on (I’m 5’4″, which I guess is technically average height, but it sure doesn’t feel like it when you’re in the back of a crowd). This being Belgium, there was also a beer stand just around the corner, selling delicious kriek, but due to the complete lack of public toilets in Belgium (and those gross exposed urinal things do not count), I opted not to partake (unlike most of the crowd, who had no such qualms about getting progressively drunker over the course of the afternoon. I’m genuinely impressed by the capacity of their bladders).
The advertising caravan, whilst pretty much just consisting of vehicles driven by local shops and car dealerships, proved to be surprisingly entertaining because they were throwing out candy to the crowds, just like at the American parades of my youth (I took baton for a bit in elementary school, and I was in marching band in high school, so I marched in quite a few of the things. Not so fun when it’s 90+ degrees on the Fourth of July, and you have to march uphill in a wool uniform whilst pretending to play a saxophone (we were meant to be playing for real, but I was terrible at it and never bothered to memorise the music)). Unlike American parades, where most people just let the children grab the candy (or maybe that was just because my mother was there glaring them all down so I could get my share), this was a complete free-for-all. If I wanted that damn candy, I had to scuffle for it with a bunch of old people (like proper old; one lady was using her Zimmer frame to guard the candy until her equally elderly friend could grab it), and I’m not ashamed to say that scuffle I did. (What, I was standing there for ages, and I hadn’t had lunch. I needed those oddly flavoured Euro-taffies!) They were also handing out fairly nice freebies, like tote bags, but you had to be near the front of the crowd to get those, like one inebriated woman who chased people down the street until they handed them over.
After the caravan had passed through, there was a fairly lengthy wait until the cat parade started up, which most people filled by drinking even more, and smoking profusely (which was not so great to have to breathe in for hours, but when in Belgium…). My feet had already started to hurt at this point (since I wear shoes with no arch support whatsoever), but when the cat parade started up, I forgot all about my aches and pains. It was brilliant!
I can’t help but feel that these photos don’t even start to do it justice, because it was everything the website promised, and more. Picture hundreds of people in hilarious cat costumes dancing through the streets, singing (what sounded like) cat themed songs, and huge cat themed floats. And historically themed tableaux. Every time you thought it might be winding down, more amazing floats would appear around the corner, and the fun would start all over again.
As you can see, they started with the Ancient Egyptians, moved on to pre-medieval Europe (the Belgian equivalent of Anglo-Saxons, whatever that is), then the Middle Ages, and then…who knows?! I completely lost track of what the hell was going on about halfway through the parade, and it really didn’t matter. I’m not sure what pole-dancing girls in cat makeup, or unicycles, or people breathing fire have to do with the history of cats, but it all worked. It was completely bonkers, and I loved every minute.
Oh yeah, and some of the floats blew out smoke, which appeared to be talcum powder or something, because it gently dusted our clothes. But I didn’t care, because they were handing out cat masks and cat flags (I made my boyfriend reach out with his long gangly arms and grab me one of each, jackpot!).
Another local tradition is the Ypres Giants, who always make an appearance in the parade. There is a legend surrounding each one of them (again, explained in more detail on their website), but their origins date back to medieval and early modern traditions in the city (though the giant figures used in the parade obviously haven’t been around that long). They’re about 5 metres high (15 feet?), and they can be made to spin around if you yell loudly enough at the people handling them (as I found out thanks to the rather tipsy guy in front of me). I like how sassy the fellow on the left is, and I’m intrigued by what appears to be a tattoo of Fidel Castro on Goliath’s arm. Or is it a tattoo of himself? Either way, it’s weird.
I also thought it was sweet that they had a section of the parade dedicated to remembrance, with ladies in white dresses dancing with poppy umbrellas, and a poppy band. It’s probably good we weren’t able to stay late enough to go to the ceremony at Menin Gate, as this part of the parade had me choked up enough as it was.
They also had some strange thing going on with rats celebrating the death of a cat king (?!). Actually, I can probably stop searching for synonyms for weird at this point, and you can just take it as a given that all of it was weird, but that’s what makes it so good.
Some band came by on a float playing Sweet Caroline at one point, which was one of the best parts, because not only were they surprisingly good, it amused me to hear a crowd of people who were previously all speaking Flemish (obviously) start singing along in English.
And of course there was Garfield, but the stars of the parade were undoubtedly Cieper, and his wife Minneke Poes (pictured at the very start of the post). Cieper has been around since 1955, although he caught fire after hitting some electrical wires in 1960, the year of Minneke Poes’s birth, and had to be rebuilt. I imagined these giant cats would close out the parade, much like Santa Claus at the Macy’s Parade (which is nowhere near as good as Kattenstoet, by the way; too much filler with all those boring Broadway numbers), but I was wrong, because a float of fools was on the horizon.
Although the big ceremonial throwing of cats was yet to come, apparently the fool hurls a few stuffed cats off the float during the parade…and this turned out to be Jessica’s time to shine! I honestly wasn’t even trying to catch a cat, since I was near the back of the crowd, but as I was looking down at my phone, something hit my arm, and I whipped my head up to discover a small stuffed cat resting on me! I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so thrilled! The people near me gathered around (I assume to congratulate me, though as they were speaking Flemish, perhaps they wanted my cat and were making rude comments), and I just smiled and nodded at them whilst clutching Cieper Jr. Maybe it’s a sign my luck is changing?
If you’re not lucky enough to catch a cat in the parade, never fear, as you’ll have another opportunity at the Cloth Hall, where the fool finally emerged after a lengthy wait, and capered around on a flimsy looking platform before hurling each toy cat off the edge (I was relieved to see he was wearing a bungee cord, because that platform seriously looked like it might collapse). I was glad I’d already managed to get a cat though, because people were going nuts for these ones. Like actually brawling over them, and crawling over each other to grab one. If after all that, you still haven’t managed to procure a cat, never fear, as there are some for sale in the town square (though obviously it’s best if you manage to get one for free).
There were also other cat-themed products for sale, including (vaguely) cat-shaped bread, and cat chocolates, but I was actually kind of disappointed there were no t-shirts or anything. I definitely would have worn a stupid cat t-shirt if there was one going. Because we were tired after standing around all afternoon, and exploring museums all morning, we opted not to stay to see the burning of the witches, and walked back to our car to beat the crowds getting out of Ieper, but if it was anything like the rest of the festival, I’m sure it was great.
What else can I say about the cat festival? I think Kattenstoet is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events (although I would definitely go back at some point in the future, it is only every three years after all), and I’m so glad I got to experience the madness. It was completely insane, in the best of ways. How many towns would really be willing to go to all this trouble, just for the sake of cats? (Seriously, Ieper is only home to about 35,000 people, and there must have been a few thousand marching in the parade, let alone involved with organising it and everything else, so most people must get involved in some way.) This is just one of the many reasons why I love Belgium. It’s always going to be one of my favourite countries to visit, and Kattenstoet has confirmed that. 5/5. Perfect.